Exodus: Christians of the Arab world flee their Biblical homeland

The Christians of the Middle East are making an unprecedented exodus from the lands in which their ancestors have lived since Christ taught here. At least two million are estimated to have left in the past five years alone, leaving only 12 million Christians in and around the lands of the Bible. And, as Robert Fisk reports from Bkerke, Lebanon, half the entire million-strong Christian population of the Arab world's most moderate state have departed in just 20 years.
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The Independent Online
When I walked into Father Michel Awit's office in the Christian Maronite Patriarchate yesterday afternoon, two middle-aged ladies were seeking his help. Could he call a Western embassy and help them obtain a visa to leave Lebanon? they were pleading with him. "What can I do?" he asked me, raising his shoulders in despair. "I do not want them to go - but I must help them." Every day, the Christians drift up to the great stone palace of Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir above Beirut to appeal for assistance in leaving the land in which their forebears have lived for two millennia.

Fr Michel fully understands the tragedy. He is the historian of Lebanon's Maronites - who are affiliated to the Roman Catholic church - and knows all too well that since the start of the country's 1975-90 civil war, the nation has haemorrhaged its Christian population. "We were a little more than a million before the war but we have lost 500,000 of our people in 22 years," he says. "The Maronites love liberty and freedom. When a Christian here sees that liberty is infringed upon, he becomes angry."

Whether or not liberties are in danger is a matter of fierce debate in Syrian-dominated Lebanon. But the disaster overwhelming the Maronite community in the country - one that Muslims suggest is of their own making - is mirrored elsewhere in the Middle East. Egypt's 6 million Christian Copts are leaving their country in tens of thousands - the community is "holding its own" by breeding as fast as its population leaves and still stands at 6 million, about 10 per cent of the population. But Christians are increasingly a target for Islamists opposed to the government in Cairo - 25 of the 77 Egyptians murdered since February have been Christian villagers in upper Egypt - while the regime insists that even the repair of churches must receive official permission.

In Iraq, at least 50,000 Assyrian Christians left in the immediate aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, many of them to the United States. This exodus - which still brings thousands of Christians to the Turkish and Iranian borders - was caused partly by the harshness of UN sanctions against Iraq. Church authorities in Jerusalem, where scarcely 2 per cent of the population are now Christian, lay the blame for their own plight on the Israelis and on US government support for Israel. "The Christian fundamentalists in the US support the idea of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel," a church official told me yesterday. "And the US consulate in Jerusalem is the easiest place for a Palestinian to get a visa to America. Isn't that strange? Of course, the Palestinian Christians are very grateful to receive those visas. But it reduces both the Palestinian population of the city and the Christian population at the same time.

The Rev Lewis Scudder, assistant to the general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Cyprus, admits that while there are no official statistics of the Christian exodus, "we know it is happening - and it is an anxiety in the church because it is the young who are leaving. And if they go, where is the next generation of adults?"

Ironically - given the Lebanese Maronite distrust of Syria - Mr Scudder says that the only Arab nation in which the Christians are maintaining their normal presence is Syria. "It remains a secular society and they feel part of the society - the state broadcasts Christian and Easter services on television," he says.

One reason may be President Hafez Assad's ruthless suppression of the Muslim rebellion in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982, a bloodbath that Egypt's President Hosni Moubarak has so far shrunk from visiting upon his own enemies. But Fr Michel says Maronites are still leaving Syria, if not in the same numbers as their co-religionists in Lebanon.

Mr Scudder believes that the exodus is partly caused by socio-economic improvements and mobility among the Middle East's middle-class Christians rather than persecution - and the pro-Iranian Hizbollah leader in Lebanon, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, is on good terms with the Maronite cardinal whom he has visited at Bkerke - but Lebanese Maronites are not so sure.

They say that under Syria's power, Lebanon's elections are a sham and its Christian parliamentary deputies and minister - under the national pact, the president is always a Maronite - are in effect stooges of Damascus. Yet the Christians are not entirely blameless. It was the Christian Phalange militia which started the civil war in 1975 and it was a Christian president who invited Syrian troops to restore order a year later. It was a Christian Maronite general, Michel Aoun, who declared himself president and began a hopeless war of "independence" against Syria. When the Pope visited Lebanon in May, he urged Christians to stay because, he promised, there would be liberty in the future. A likely story, the Maronites thought.

Emir Hares Chehab, general secretary of the Lebanese Islamic-Christian national dialogue committee, takes a more historic view. "We Lebanese Christians are Arabs and we were Christians here for 700 years before Arabs became Muslims. The church of Antioch was the first church of Christ. Since Muslims came here 14 centuries ago, we have lived in coexistence with them. But things are changing. If we are now few in number, Islam is different from what it used to be. Islam now has a character that comes from Pakistan and Indonesia and Malaysia and Africa. The Arabs are becoming a minority in Islam."

The believers

Egypt: Population about 60 million, of whom about 10 per cent are Christian, mostly Copts.

Iraq: About 3 per cent of the 18 million population are Christians, including Chaldean rite Catholics, Assyrians and Syrian Orthodox.

Israel: Population about 5 million, of whom 128,000 are Christian, though this includes the whole of Jerusalem.

Occupied Territories and Gaza: Population about 2.5 million. Christians are few in Gaza, and about 3 per cent on the West Bank, mostly Greek Orthodox or Catholic.

Jordan: Population 4.5 million, of whom about 3 per cent are Christians.

Lebanon: The 3 million population is about 65 per cent are Muslim and 35 per cent Christian, most of them Maronite Catholics.

Syria: No official statistics. It is thought about 10 per cent of Syria's 13 million are Christian, mostly of the Syrian Orthodox Church.